Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend
March 9, 2012, 8:52 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Horror | Tags: , , , , , ,

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend belongs on the shelf next to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Matheson’s book considers the vampire not only as a scourge, but as a sort of new development in evolution, a sudden leap forward for humankind. Matheson asks not just what life is like for the last man on earth, but what life is for those he is fighting against.

The bulk of I Am Legend is about Robert Neville’s daily life: his to-do lists, his efforts to keep up his home, his meals, his “shopping” trips, and his attempts to learn more about vampires – first to learn how to kill them, and then to see if there is any way of curing them of their disease. Vampirism in Matheson’s novel is spread not only by the bite of vampires, but by air. In flashbacks, we see the early days of the plague, when few people had any suspicion that the illness going around was more than a particularly virulent strain of the flu.

One of the real joys in reading I Am Legend is the simplicity of Matheson’s prose, and the way he fits Neville’s attempts to survive into the text as just another part of the day. Early in the novel, removing vampires who have been killed by their fellows – each night they mass outside Neville’s home, sometimes eating one another when no better fare presents itself – is presented as no more notable an activity than gathering other debris from around the house.

He put on heavy gloves and walked over to the woman on the sidewalk.

There was certainly nothing attractive about them in the daylight, he thought, as he dragged them across the lawn and threw them up on the canvas tarpaulin. There wasn’t a drop left in them; both women were the color of fish out of water. He raised the gate and fastened it. He went around the lawn then, picking up stones and bricks and putting them into a cloth sack. He put the sack in the station wagon and then took off his gloves. He went inside the house, washed his hands, and made lunch: two sandwiches, a few cookies, and a thermos of hot coffee.

Neville’s story is told over years, allowing Matheson to fully explore what isolation and waning hope do to a man. I Am Legend is, at end, a story about what makes a person. Neville’s attempts to learn something about the vampires, to in some way help them and in so doing help himself, reveals the depth of his loneliness. When he sees a dog, a fellow survivor, he is caught between joy at the potential for a companion, and some deeper despair that he can’t hope for anything more than a dog.

It’s fascinating, too, to watch Matheson play with traditional ideas of the vampire. When he realizes that it’s vampires, not simply a disease, that he’s up against, Neville’s research pushes him to confront the romanticized images of the vampire in literature, and how those images are both applicable to, and vastly different from, the vampires he faces.

And all without blood-eyed vampires hovering over heroines’ beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural. The vampire was real. It was only that his true story had never been told.

Matheson seamlessly weaves together these two halves of the story: Neville’s attempts to live in “a world in which murder was easier than hope”, and the true story of the vampire. In doing so, he gives us a classic and gorgeously wrought story that faces, in nearly equal measure, the questions of hope, loneliness, and what it means to live – from the view of both vampire and man.


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